Reviewing The Olive Garden, or Bonfire of the Inanities

The Internet has a habit of latching on to innocent phenomena and turning them into A) punching bags, B) cautionary tales, or C) dead horses. Today's checkmark in perhaps all three boxes is the earnest review of the new Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by long-time Grand Forks Herald staffer Marilyn Hagerty. Her grandmotherly face is spreading like wildfire across the screens and keyboards of snarkists and the higher-minded consumers of food and food criticism. The poor dear.

A case can be made for the virtue of Ms. Hagerty's review, which is but one of many she has written over the years, covering local restaurants and chains, unique and pedestrian. A town of fewer than 60,000 residents isn't going to have the same kind of tidal surge of new restaurants to cover as even a small city like Madison. If her paper's readers want food coverage, they get to read about what's there. If that means The Olive Garden, then that's what they're going to get. And if they like such coverage, then who has the right to tell them their opinions are wrong? The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants unlimited salad and breadsticks.

But in choosing to submit words, paragraphs, inches, to the larger entity that is food writing, Ms. Hagerty is not immune to criticism on the merits of that genre just because she's a sweet old lady. So if someone wanted to knock her review (or reviews, as this appears to be a common occurrence) for only discussing one trip to the restaurant instead of the customary three, one could rightfully do that. If someone were to point out that there are only a small handful of sentences dedicated to discussion of the actual food -- this The Eatbeat, not an interior décor column, after all -- that person would not be out of place. An unimpressed reader could even argue that the review isn't particularly well-written, but again: if it’s the style that gets eyeballs and clicks in Grand Forks, then there's little reason for rhetorical flourishes and witty wordplay. The world needs ditch-diggers, too, as the man once said.

It's a five-to-one ratio out there (in my circles, anyway), with the majority taking mildly perverse pleasure in the review's weaknesses. I think most of those titterers would probably acknowledge that it's a dark laugh they're having. As someone who has covered the arrival of a shiny-and-new chain shop in town, I can sympathize with the struggle to give such a story integrity and value. So let us all share in Olive Garden's spirit of Italian generosity, and allow for the cynics and the scolds alike.

But not the haters sending shitty emails to poor Marilyn; no hospitaliano for them.